Words by David C. Obenour
Long rumored from legends, conspiracies, message boards and conventions, the information is finally all piecing together! You’ve searched long and hard for this fabled creature and now a series of clues have lead you, and a few of your fellow explorers, to what you all believe must be the location! Everyone seems to know more than they let on and now it’s just to find out their secrets… before they find out yours!
With an ever-changing arrangement of board tiles corresponding to an ever-changing set of clues, players assume the roles of cryptozoologists on the search for these majestic and elusive creatures. Setting up the board with the guidance of the Companion App or the Clue Books and Setup Cards, players create the region of their search and secretly discover each of their single clues for that game. Starting on turn one, players can either ask one another if a space is possible according to their clue or, after a few rounds of deduction, search a space by asking all other players in turn order if that location is possible. After a player successfully searches the one space on the board that satisfies all of the player’s clues, the Cryptid has been found!
Simple to explain and quick to play while also being mentally demanding and rewarding, Cryptid is a deduction board game unlike many other modern games.
Off Shelf: Trying to think about the mental gymnastics of working out the ever-changing map pieces and the corresponding clues that only leads to one possible space for the Cryptid daunting to say the least. How did you do it?
Ruth Veevers: For our very first prototype it was done manually. Hal started with a blank hex grid, picked a space and a set of four clues, then drew features and terrain on the board to make that space be uniquely identified. That version was only playable once, and only with four players, but it was enough to show us that the game was worth working on. I developed a piece of software which mixed up sections of Hal’s map and chose a space on it, then found a subset of possible clues that uniquely identified the space, as well as fitting some other balance-related criteria.
After that first game, sets of clues were generated by different versions of my software. I loved working on the set-up generation. While we could have just tried all possible combinations of clues and pick ones that worked, I wanted to work out how to narrow down the options with a specific space in mind. It seemed like an interesting, very specific problem that didn’t have a well-known solution, so I had to think about approaches to similar problems and try to think of an interesting way to solve it. That process was a huge part of why I’ve subsequently gone back to academia to start working towards a PhD.
OS: Did figuring this out come first or did the theme of adventurers searching for a Cryptid come before the mechanic?
Hal Duncan: The Cryptid theme came quite a bit later on. Initially, the theme was pirates all trying to be the first to find a buried treasure. We eventually decided that the pirate theme created some expectations which were very different to the game we had made: pirates implies fighting, stealing and sailing, not a logic heavy deduction game. After thinking about a few more goofy themes, we decided on scientists on an alien planet looking for an elusive creature.
The benefit we saw in the science fiction setting was that the distribution of terrain and features didn’t have to look plausibly earth-like, we could arrange things to best fit the logic of the game. Casting the players as scientists gave a good explanation for the mechanics of the game: they’ve all done different research and uncovered different evidence about the creature, and they share some of their research with their peers.
At this point it was called Unfeeling Creatures, a name we had wanted to use for something for a long time. We still think it’s a cool name, but it doesn’t really suggest anything about the game, so we eventually settled on Cryptid as it’s phonetically similar to words like ‘cryptic’ and ‘encryption’ which suggest a puzzle experience. Osprey decided to bring the game back to earth, to a North American setting, which fit the theme better.
OS: Cryptid seems really interesting as a game in that without the theme and art it would just be a really thinky exercise in deduction. What do you think it is about play that can take something that in other circumstances might be considered laborious and turn it into an enjoyable game?
RV: I think what makes puzzle-like games feel enjoyable is when the satisfaction of working things out outweighs the difficulty of finding the answer. We tried to balance the number of possible clues so that it would be quite a short game, so that you get the satisfaction of finding out which parts of the solution you had right before you get too fatigued. The core puzzle also has multiple sections, so along the way there are smaller intermediate rewards, like working out an individual player’s clue, or getting a player to place their first disc.
HD: The emotional payoff in the game is getting to feel smart when you work something out, which carries the risk of making people feel stupid if they are wrong. We tried to maximize the positive opportunities for people to feel smart, while minimizing the negative risk of them being publicly wrong. As Ruth mentioned, there’s lots of intermediate rewards during the game, but there’s not many times you’ll be obviously wrong. When asking a question, you don’t have to say what you think the answer will be, so there’s no way of other players telling whether you’re on the wrong track or not, hopefully minimizing the risk of players feeling less smart than others.
OS: How did you connect with Kwanchai Moriya to do Cryptid‘s art? How involved were you with guidance on what he did for the game?
HD: Osprey handled the art for production, and we weren’t very involved in the process beyond suggesting a few general art styles we enjoy. When we found out Kwanchai was doing the art for the game and Osprey sent us a draft of the cover, we were delighted. Kwanchai and Osprey did a great job, the terrains are clear and characterful, and the creatures on the cover and in the manual are wonderful.
OS: Despite all of the engaging thinking, Cryptid is a relatively simple game in how it’s played and what players are trying to do. Were there additional twists or ways of play that you’d considered before arriving at the final game?
Ruth: At one point there was a currency you had to gain and spend in order to take the search action, but that was quickly discarded as being too cumbersome. We experimented briefly with having each player have a scientist on the map which moves about, where players can only ask about spaces their scientist could reach, but this added an obstacle between the player and the part of the game that we found the most interesting: the deduction puzzle. For a while we tried to get the game down to only one action, but it never quite worked out. We briefly worked on a hidden movement game using the same components and clues in different ways which was interesting but never as compelling as Cryptid.
The game asks players to hold a lot of information in their mind at the same time, so I think it was important to us not to use up any more of that cognitive space than necessary with the rules of the game.
OS: Cryptid seems to engage a very different part of the brain than most other contemporary board games. What about how the game plays excites you?
HD: I’m most proud of the way Ruth was able to use technology to enable an entirely analogue experience. The computation up front is necessary to provide the structure of the game, but then playing is completely using the physical pieces rather than having to go back to the application.
OS: Did you have a particular Cryptid that fascinated you as a child or still does as an adult?
RV: I’m particularly interested in Mothman – as well as looking cool, the Mothman story brings in some other weird elements like the Men in Black and UFOs which are the icing on the cake. I also love the Fresno nightcrawlers because they’re just so strange-looking – like the walking ghosts of trousers.
OS: Do you believe in any cryptids still?
HD: Not among the more fantastical ones like Mothman or Bigfoot, but I find it pretty believable that there are few Lazarus species which we think have gone extinct but still have a very small surviving population hidden away somewhere. I like reading about the occasional Thylacine sighting, even if it turns out to be a fox with mange sometimes.
RV: I’m pretty skeptical in general, so there aren’t really any cryptids I’d say I believe in, though I still get excited when I see a new story about something weird that has washed up or someone who’s seen Bigfoot.
OS: Are you working on any other games at the moment?
Ruth: We’re currently playing with some ideas for print-and-play games with computationally generated components. There was an early iteration of Cryptid where the map was generated as a unique pdf file, and players would draw symbols on the printout when they gave out information. It wasn’t right for Cryptid as the clues were hard to print and distribute secretly, but I’m interested in ways we can use the print-and-play medium to create games that feel like you’re discovering them each session. We’ve also been working on a compact fairly abstract hidden movement inspired game about chasing something than can exist in multiple places.